Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer-winning play “Buried Child” rises again at just the right time

The strange perceptual disconnect between Vince (Shane Kenyon, left) and his troubled father Tilden (Mark L Montgomery, far right) charges “Buried Child” with contemporary resonance. Vince’s girlfriend Shelly (Arti Ishak, center) and his grandfather Dodge (Larry Yando, background) look on perplexed, for very different reasons. Courtesy The Chicago Sun-Times

Buried Child by Sam Shepard, Writers Theatre, Glenco, IL, running through June 17.

Glencoe, IL  – A buried child haunts our times, a ghost that rose in uncanny and shocking ways Friday at Writers Theatre in this northern Chicago suburb. As it played out, Sam Shepard’s reputation-forging play Buried Child had perhaps more stunning resonance than it did in 2001, when the Milwaukee Repertory Theater staged it. Even if you saw it back then, it’s worth revisiting, especially now. It’s a weirdly deft admixture of psycho-drama, quirky horror, dark comedy and culture clash. And it closely peels back the mythology of the heartland. Is that notion rotting away, or only in need of air and sunlight? 

Like fearless spiritual homesteaders in dire times, Writers Theatre demonstrated why it has become one of the Chicago area’s premier live theater venues, and it’s only an hour and 15 minute drive from Milwaukee.

What specifically might make such a drive worthwhile? The relevance factor is a hefty reason though it’s far from the only thing. The play felt like an extraordinarily revealing look into the forsaken rural regions of what we might think of as Trump’s America, even if suburban whites actually turned the Electoral College in Trump’s favor. Astute observers now oter that the skewed-to-the-very-rich economics of the 2017 Republican tax cut will deepen the divide drastically further. And with this family’s lack of crops for years, economics is a huge part of the divide in this play as well, echoing Trump’s betrayal of his working-class base, like a sort of narcissistic, weirdly-overfed grim reaper.

This play, which received a Pulitzer Prize in 1979, presages today’s daunting cavern between urban and rural America in both stark and mysterious terms. Even though it premiered in San Francisco’s Magic Theater the year before, and even if Shepard played drums for an East Side New York psychedelic-folk band The Holy Modal Rounders, his play carries only a flashes of baby boomer-type anti-establishment sentiment.  Rather, it exemplifies Shepard’s originality and one-step-removed rural sensitivity, and serves as a living, breathing tribute to the playwright and actor, who died last summer of Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS) at 73.

Playwright and actor Sam Shepard, who died last summer, exudes a Samuel Beckett-like demeanor in this portrait from 2016. Courtesy The New York Times

Rather than ideology, Shepard once said he found inspiration from a newspaper story about an accidentally exhumed body of a child in a backyard. That became the withering backbone of his play about a mid-eastern Illinois family as diseased as the black, stylized trees on the set appear to be. He charged it partly with his own experience of growing up with a heavy-drinking, mentally-troubled father.

So the play opens with a family patriarch named Dodge staring numbly at a television, hacking convulsively, puffing cigarettes, popping pills, and sneaking shots of whiskey from a fifth stashed underneath the sofa cushion. The first 15 minutes of the play strangely transpire with Dodge enduring his wife Halie’s blathering from an upstairs bedroom. The disjunct symbolism hangs portentously as Dodge clearly subsists in a sort of purgatory, and he’s a pretty good bet for perdition, at any time.

The physical and spiritual disintegration of rural Illinois family patriarch Dodge (Larry Yando) in “Buried Child” is evident in these two sequences from Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer prize-winning play. Courtesy The Writers Theater (top) and The Chicago Reader (above)

Then, today’s miles-deep cultural cleavage between the urban and rural arises when Dodge’s grandson Vince, now a city-dweller, arrives in a surprise visit with his new girlfriend Shelly, after six years absence from family contact.
And yet somehow, he’s become a rank stranger to his kinfolk. Dodge, by turns addled and spitefully pointed, might understandably not recognize Vince. But then, who walks in with an armful of messily-harvested carrots but Vince’s own father Tilden, even more sadly troubled than Dodge, for possessing a conscience. The middle-aged son has fled back home after floundering in New Mexico – and can’t recognize his own son.
This odd perceptual gap lies ripe for interpretation, but today it seems reflective of two very different Americas that seem to perpetually talk past each other and – given this play’s hidden, underlying subject – it evokes the somber saying, “We hardly knew ya.”

The harvested crops also carry peculiar weight. Tilden had previously hauled in an overflowing armful of corn, to the disbelief of both Dodge and Halie, who insist that their back lot hasn’t spawned corn for 30 years. In a stunning scene that closes the first act, Tilden delicately covers his father, now asleep on the sofa, with all the corn husks  he’d just shucked. It’s a  burial of sorts, slightly ghoulish and goldenbut also richly resonant in its visual and organic presence.

Bradley (Timothy Edward Kane), one of family patriarch Dodge’s sons, comes home to discover his sleeping father buried in freshly-shucked corn husks, in Writers Theatre production of “Buried Child.” Courtesy Theater Mania

The urban couple’s arrival signal’s Shepard’s early feminist instincts, as Shelly stakes her ground and identity, and earns grudging respect from the country folk. “She’s a pistol, isn’t she?” Dodge exclaims. Shelly also stands as the fulcrum of relative sanity in the goings-on, especially after her boyfriend comes home raging drunk, seeming just as much of a lost cause as the other family’s males.

Mother Halie (Shannon Cochran) is a case, in her own way, cloaking the family’s secret in bourgeois normalcy, while ever on the edge. She’s also carrying on a barely-concealed affair with a local priest who, despite his counseling background, is utterly lost at sea amid this family’s swirling currents of craziness.

As for the source of the madness, that could be a complexity of factors, but perhaps the deepest of all lies somewhere out in the back, as mysteriously present as the sudden crop harvest. Old man Dodge carries his burden like a shipwrecked Ahab floating back to the surface, with no purpose left, only spite, bile, and self-made doom. Larry Yando manages to reveal some bleakly comical aspects to this character’s roughly-carved visage.

Indeed, the play seems hell-bent on sweeping, in slow-motion, down into an engulfing whirlpool. Then comes the ending, where Shepard brilliantly cuts in several different directions, lending the play a weird suspension, and his finest lines of the script. We hear Vince, in a nightmarish recollection of his intended flight thwarted by ghosts; and then Halie up in her oddly elevated bedroom again, exclaiming, suddenly entranced by the sun-blessed crops she sees for the first time. Her unpretentious aria entwines gritty lyricism and blind pathos:

Dodge? Is that you Dodge? Tilden was right about the corn…It’s all hidden. It’s all unseen. you just gotta wait till it pops up out of the ground. Tiny little shoot. Tiny little white shoot. All hairy and fragile. Strong though. Strong enough to break the earth even. It’s a miracle, Dodge. I’ve never seen a crop like this in my whole life.
Maybe it’s the sun. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the sun.

Her clipped, building phrases, reflecting Shepard’s drummer’s rhythmic sense –and his skill with chilling metaphoric analogies – carries potential redemption of the heartland myth. And yet, the long, grim shadow looming over this family will crisscross Halie, and her revelation.

____________

For tickets and other information on WT’s Buried Child, visit: Buried Child

 

 

 

 

The ravages of a still-mysterious fire upon historic Trinity Lutheran Church

Photo of fire fighters battling the Trinity Lutheran Church fire. Courtesy Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Great Gothic shoulders and luminous stained-glass had stood majestically in downtown Milwaukee since 1878. That’s when the Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church rose to add its towering profile to Milwaukee’s skyline. At the time, it was surely one of the tallest structures in the city, at 254 feet, perhaps the tallest.

Preceding the 1895 City Hall, The Pabst Building has been claimed by Wikipedia as Milwaukee’s tallest building. But the Pabst, built in 1895, was only 235 feet, and demolished in 1981. Apparently those who determine such things don’t count church spires. City Hall became Milwaukee’s tallest building until completion of the First Wisconsin Center in 1973.

And yet, in one fateful recent day, a fire gutted the grand Lutheran structure, stripped down a spire. The cause of the horrendous blaze remains a matter of question, though heating equipment of the construction crew had initially been blamed.

Another troubling aspect is the report that the construction company working on renovations of the structure — long on the National Registry for Historic Places — did not have a city permit, at the time of the fire.

That story remains to be completely told, but I wanted to convey the actual physical loss of this beautiful church though — in seeing the devastation myself — I could sense some of the spiritual loss of a displaced congregation, from a church which won’t be usable for the foreseeable future, if ever again.

I had coincidentally photographed the church a couple months ago, for a blog about The March for Our Lives event. I simply added the photos as a kind of postscript, because I was so struck by the beauty and structural perseverance of the old church.
So, yesterday in drizzling rain, I went down to see and photograph the charred remains from the fire. Whether the church is salvageable remains in doubt.

The sight of it startled me, moved me to the verge of tears. Nothing remains of the roof but black skeletal rib bones. The south steeple melted down to virtually nothing. And the conflagration consumed much of the interior, previously adorned with sumptuous amounts of wood, including a stately pulpit.

There’s hopeful news though. It is possible all is not lost after the Tuesday fire, an architect told WISN 12 News.

”While the roof burned, the load-bearing walls appear intact,” according to Milwaukee Area Technical College architecture technology instructor Daniel Inyang. That means the church could be rebuilt from the remaining structure, rather than demolish the 140-year-old building.

‘Looking at it initially, since most of the masonry and structural walls are intact, yes, it could be (rebuilt),’ Inyang said. (He) stressed a structural engineer “will have to check the integrity of the walls to be certain.” The fire caused an estimated $17 million in damage.

Donations toward rebuilding the church are being accepted at this site (select “Trinity MKE fund”): SW Wisconsin Lutheran Church Missouri Synod site .

I offer also a few of my photos from March, to remind readers of the church when it remained intact, to measure the loss of this tragic event (Apologies for the rain-spattered lense on a few of the shots below) 

The full profile of Trinity Lutheran Church is now horribly ravaged by fire.

I just came across this stunning photo of the fire-damaged Trinity church, with the sun burning through the broken stain-glass windows in the facade. Courtesy DeSisti ?

The Trinity church in March.

Note (between the two photos above) the total disappearance of the south spire (visible here at the roof intersection of the nave and the north transept), aside from the terrible roof damage.

On the roof, the fire consumed everything but the charred backbone of Trinity.

A view of the damage to the south steeple and the roof and south transept of Trinity Lutheran Church.

These deformed, charred shards are all that remains of Trinity’s south steeple.

Here and above are views of the burnt-out interior of the church through damaged stained-glass windows.

The damage to windows on Trinity’s facade shows how intense fire can actually melt away stained glass.

Trinity’s relatively new church office, connected to the church with a glass-enclosed walkway, was apparently undamaged, and provides functional hope for the church’s future.

Gold-plated candle lighters and snufters, salvaged from the fire, stand in the locked church office lobby for a time when they can do their lighting duty again.

Milwaukee’s historic past — the corner of the Trinity Church, situated on 9th Street and Highland, and present — the new Bucks arena in the background. 

Caitlin Canty and enchanting Three Brothers Farm radiate myriad shades of romance

 

Singer-songwriter Caitlin Canty and pedal steel player and guitarist Eric Heywood perform beside the still-strong sunlight of early evening and below the “field halo” at Three Brothers Farm, outside of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. 

 As I haven’t done justice to Eric Heywood’s artful moans and whorls on the pedal steel, I relate that a man approached me after Ms. Canty’s performance, having heard I write a blog, and told me the pedal steel player created “3-D musical romanticism.”

The romance of Three Brothers Farm radiated even before the early Saturday evening sun flooded into the rustic barn that serves as a concert space. Chicken and sheep wandered around in their spacious areas. For that matter, romance, such as it is, involves the feathered creatures. The hens have virtually free roam of a pasture, with room for mating privacy with roosters and other well being, which helps produce the quality eggs the farm sells, at its events and in area grocery stores. 1

And by concert time, the sun had burned off the rain from the early morning, and overcast clouds had fled. But sunlight couldn’t chase away the rue of my gal pal, Ann Peterson, who was unable to come to what she describes as “the most romantic place I can think of” for a concert. She was babysitting for her very first grandchild, so I took in the show with my friend Steve Hackbarth, an assistant professor of English at Milwaukee Lutheran College, who lives nearby in Oconomowoc. Besides being a Medieval and Renaissance literature scholar, Steve is an acute appreciator of well-crafted song storytelling lyrics and vernacular-music style which, among its various roots, can be traceable to Medieval plainsong.

A cantor like Caitlin knows how to craft a story, whether in the artful form of a song or a confessional anecdote, clearly inspired by this very special place.

Three Brothers helped facilitated her musical relationship with The Punch Brothers, which includes mandolinist and singer Chris Thile, now the host of the beloved NPR radio program A Prairie Home CompanionThe Punch Brothers were performing at Milwaukee’s Summerfest a few years back, when they got wind of her playing not too far away at Three Brothers, near Oconomowoc, Wisconsin. Punch Brother Noam Pickelny found time to come to see her and sat in with her at the enchanted venue.

If he or the Punch Brothers fell under a Three Brothers spell, it has continued and enhanced Canty’s evocative artistic endeavors on her latest album Motel Bouquet. One thing led to the next and Pickelny ended up playing lead guitars and banjo, co-writing several of the songs with Canty, and producing the album. Two fellow Punch Brothers also assist on the album: Paul Kowert plays upright bass and, on two tracks, Gabe Witcher plays fiddle.   

She did share some anecdotes about her life on the road that enhanced the romantic atmosphere. This all unfolded with her wide, beaming Julia Roberts-like smile, which also graces her unassuming, self-deprecating humor. She loved the idea of playing while sunlight could still enhance the atmosphere. Then she related, “Somebody said to me, “you are so pale.’ And I said ‘Well, I lived the life of a vampire, also I’m Irish.”

 These were reasons why this was her favorite place to play, perhaps a romantic exaggeration.

“But I normally play in small, dark clubs that smell like year-old beer on the floor,” she explained, as a gentle breeze, sunlight and rustic aromas filled the barn. She also marveled at what she calls the “field halo,” a large, ingenious circular construction of grain grasses bedecked in festive lights, which hovers over the space in front of the stage. (see photo at top). It felt almost like the golden ghost of a hoary, prehistoric buffalo that might’ve once wandered wild in these parts. Meanwhile, the farm’s pet dog wandered eagerly among the seated guests, sniffing for droppings of the delicious stone oven-fired pizza they sell at concerts. But her primary offering was Motel Bouquet, and this felt like an ideal setting to share the complex aspects of romance entailed in the album’s songs.

A view of the farm fields is as clear as a view of the stage at Three Brothers Farm

“Motel Bouquet” cover courtesy americansongwriter. com. All other photos by Kevin Lynch

Which brings us to the music. Her performance consisted primarily of material from Motel Bouquet, which trafficks in plenty of romance but in no simple or facile terms. The cover image conveys the transitory nature of life on the road for a touring musician, and such a person’s romantic prospects. A photograph of a bouquet of vased roses appears to sit on the table of a moving bus or a train, an unsteady situation in itself. At Three Brothers, a similar bouquet of short-lived roses sat right before her microphone, as Canty performed (see photo below).

With the extremely able backdrop of Eric Heywood’s pedal steel guitar, she meandered through the album, almost inverting the song order in a sort of shuffle sequence, like rose petals blown backwards, falling into a trail of memories. The album’s penultimate song, the country twanger “Basil Gone to Blossom,” a metaphor for short-lived romance, came early. And the album opener, “Take Me for a Ride,” closed her concert’s set list.

Her voice is effectively expressive – especially with the sort of swallow-a-word emotional quaver, and the wistful, high-pitched sigh in a phrase: “You-hoo-hoo take me for a ride,” – that disarms the listener, while arming her against further deceit.

Otherwise, her voice has regular-girl qualities and its straightforwardness helps to frame her lyrics without distraction. As a Vermontian, she says she writes from a “cold weather perspective.” Her north country girl’s sensibility arose quickly in “Time Rolls By” which alludes obliquely to Joni Mitchell’s classic “River”: “Time rolls by, another day washes away/with my heartbeat counting the/ time rolling by slowly/ like a frozen river winding to sea.”
She rightly claims the centerpiece of the album is a remarkably spare, almost existential questioning song, “Who.” She had considered it for the album’s title, although she jokingly noted that it would have implied the question mark: ‘Caitlin Canty Who?”  Here, her voice seems engulfed in a cloud of uncertainty, hanging low like a haunting.

You took the salt from my lips

you took the love from my fingertips

you took the red from my mouth

you put the light out

 

Who put the moon in your cry

Who put the wind in your sigh

Who put the sun in your eyes

Who

Then, with Heywood’s steel pealing in the dark, she picked up the tempo, hardened the edge and toughened the hide on “I’m Onto You.” The vamping Lucinda Williams-like lament also references one of that songwriter’s famous images: You pull up the driveway in the following night/ familiar crunching gravel underneath your tires/ wonder why no one bothered to leave on a light/ fumble with your keys blindly step inside/ feel the cold air rush from an empty room.”  

Perhaps this pregnantly hollow scene left Canty fleeing to Motel Bouquet. But this night the troubadour had found a high, embracing barn roof, blessed with long shafts of sunlight, beneath a room full affectionate and engaged listeners. And to the degree such songwriting may be confessional, we can only give thanks she’s finally found a room in a home with a fiddler who can pluck her strings, and stay right beside the fire in her heart.

Several notable singer-songwriters lingered in the crowd, including Peter Mulvey and Hayward Williams, who came up to sing harmony with Canty on a cover of Neil Young’s “She Rides a Harley Davidson,” a perfect love ode for a Milwaukee-area crowd. 

Totally struck by a night that was so “sparkly and beautiful,” Canty changed her final encore to a waltz. The sauntering 3/4 time of “Tennessee Waltz” allowed sparkle into the tempo and the sadness, as she firmed up her tough romantic’s bonafides. The seminal country refrain provided fuel aplenty to roll on down the road, to a blinking-light in the fog, and a low-slung place in the dark, for her to lay her head.  

I left for home with a copy of Motel Bouquet, enchanted memories, and a dozen of the farm’s pasture-raised eggs.

_________

1 I wrote about Tree Brothers Farm as a concert venue in an illustrated survey feature of upper Midwest roots music venues in the “Heartland” issue, of ” No Depression: The Journal of Roots Music, which included quotes from Caitlin Canty. The article and journal are only available in print form. The coffee-table quality book can be ordered here:

Heartland – Spring 2017

 

Milwaukee’s 140-year-old Trinity Lutheran Church before the fire

I was especially disheartened by the news of the terrible fire that ravaged Trinity Lutheran Evangelical Church in downtown Milwaukee recently. While walking back to my car after participating in the March for our Lives event on March 24, I passed the church and its beauty and deeply aging majesty captivated me. The cream city brick is especially evident as an ornamental offset to the darker brick, lending the structure a distinctly Milwaukee character.

Trinity’s current location, known as Terrace Garden, was constructed in 1878, and designed by Fredrick Velguth in Victorian Gothic style.  All interior woodwork was hand carved from Wisconsin Oak and Ash.  The pulpit, also in wood, “is a creation of Gothic art.” One fears the fate of  these virtually irreplaceable wood aspects (see last photo below of the interior).

When I took the group of photos below,  I was heartened to see renovations ongoing for  the sanctuary, as well as other apparent improvements. So I empathize with actual congregation members when the news broke recently. I see no symbolism in the accident. I only hope and pray this congregation is not compromising the moral and humane ideals of Jesus Christ, like all to many nominally Christian evangelical churches and leaders in the current climate of purely transactional, divisive, anti-immigrant politics that President Trump has fostered. Trinity is self-described as a “conservative, caring” congregation. It’s important to note that immigrants from Pomerania, Germany founded the church in 1847.

The neighboring community has responded accordingly. Church officials are looking for a more permanent temporary location but this Sunday, May 20, the faithful “will worship together at 10:00AM  on the campus of the Milwaukee Area Technical College in the C Auditorium.”

Several friends have asked me what the source of the fire was. Initial reports said that heating equipment near the construction areas triggered the blaze, but the cause is still under investigation. The TMJ4 report linked here includes the troubling news that the contractors did not have the proper permit for the roof construction underway when I walked by. Their online report includes video of the consuming fire:

WTMJ video and report on church fire

I hope my photos provided some lasting memory of the 140-year-old beauty of the church shortly before the fire. It’s worthy of rebuilding and preservation.

 

Interiors of Trinity Lutheran Church in Milwaukee. Photos courtesy milwaukeetrinity. org. All photos of church exterior by Kevin Lynch

 

 

 

 

Culture Currents wins Milwaukee Press Club award and Pulitzer-winner Megan Twohey highlights awards dinner

 

 

Kevin Lynch with his 2017 Milwaukee Press Club award for best critical review of the arts, for a Culture Currents review. Photo by Ann K. Peterson

For this night, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For me, The Milwaukee Press Club’s Journalism Awards Dinner Friday evening summoned memories, and gratitude, but also pressing urgency about the media’s current role in the nation’s often-troubling affairs and crises.

Recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Meghan Twohey of The New York Times spoke, upon  receiving the press club’s Sacred Cat award, in honor of her extraordinary investigative work with Jodi Kantor. The Times duo broke the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal which triggered the extraordinary “#Me Too” movement last year. Twohey and Kantor helped to expose sexual harassment and abuse throughout various major patriarchal systems of power.

More on Twohey and her work shortly.

This blog received the press club’s gold prize for best critical review of the arts for 2017 in Wisconsin journalism. The top prize in this category went to a Culture Currents review titled “Adolph Rosenblatt: A Great Eye, Gifted Hands, and a Huge Heart.”

Last August, I reviewed a retrospective exhibit of an acclaimed and beloved Milwaukee artist and educator,  Adolph Rosenblatt, at the Jewish Museum of Milwaukee. The exhibit beautifully chronicled the late Rosenblatt’s artistic output, dominated by handcrafted figurative clay sculpture of unassuming wit and insight, which captured life in Milwaukee with the grainy fingerprint of truth. The show also revealed his lesser-known work addressing important social issues, including a precursor of the #MeToo movement, the Anita Hill case vs. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

I had studied with Rosenblatt as an undergraduate art student at UW-Milwaukee, about the time when he transitioned from predominantly painting to his trademark sculpture. It was a pleasure to remember and write about this genial and knowing artist. Here’s is my review:

Adolph Rosenblatt: A great eye, gifted hands and a huge heart

At the awards dinner, another blast from this writer’s past came when the out-of-state judges awarded a second top prize for best critical review to Dominique Paul Noth, for his film review titled “Meryl as Metaphor,” for Urban Milwaukee, an online publication.
Noth was my editor during most of my 10 years with The Milwaukee Journal, before its merger with The Milwaukee Sentinel and my move to Madison to work for The Capital Times.

Noth had been film and theater critic for The Journal before becoming arts and entertainment editor in the early 1980s. At the awards dinner, I also caught up with another former colleague, Rob Thomas of The Capital Times, who won a bronze award for his review of the film Dunkirk.

This is the second gold award presented by the Milwaukee Press Club to the Culture Currents blog, which also won for a 2013 review of an exhibit by the historic photographer Edward L. Curtis, who pioneered documentation of Native American life and culture. The Museum of Wisconsin Art presented that exhibit. 1

So the night offered opportunity to meet up with a variety of accomplished Wisconsin journalists in print, radio, television and online media.

Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times investigative reporters Megan Twohey (left) and Jodi Kantor broke the Harvey Weinstein sex abuse scandal story, which helped launch the “#Me Too” movement. Photo by Sharon Suh

But the evening’s highlight was clearly the appearance by Megan Twohey, who accepted her Press Club Sacred Cat Award for herself and Jodi Kantor.

In her acceptance speech, Twohey said that, since winning the Pulitzer and the prestigious George Polk Award for national reporting, she has done a number of speaking engagements. But this was her favorite occasion because she grew up as a professional journalist here in Milwaukee. The Evanston native worked for The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel for four years before being hired at The New York Times.
“I’m really grateful to (Journal-Sentinel) editor George Stanley for giving a young inexperienced woman a chance, and for believing in me,” she said.

Twohey recounted how, before the Weinstein investigation, she had previously reported on the stories of four or five women who had accused President Trump of sexual misconduct. “Trump was very unhappy with me, and at one point he called me ‘a disgusting human being.'” she recalled.
It’s striking how that comment could be mirrored back at Trump himself. Twohey should  consider the misfired insult a badge of honor, as a professional journalist seeking the truth in the Trump era.

When she and Kantor began digging into the long-heard rumors about film and media mogul Harvey Weinstein’s sexual misadventures, they encountered his longtime strategy of bullying and attempting to silence not only his victims but potential reporters.
But The New York Times editors stood firmly behind their reporters, and Weinstein’s efforts to meet with editors to “explain himself and clarify things” failed. The reporters began the hard work of accumulating on-the-record testimonies from numerous women as well as Weinstein himself. They would not use anonymous sources, Twohey said.

She explained the challenge of persuading many of Weinstein’s victims to speak up after years of coerced silence. “I told them I couldn’t change what happened to you, but we could change your personal pain and turn it into something constructive.” Twohey’s empathetic strategy eventually worked.

The reporters published their first story in October 2017 and went on to expose how Weinstein had preyed upon 70 women, with various types of sexual assault and abuse including rape. That opened the door to the extraordinary exposure of sexual abuse by powerful men across many industries.

These remain difficult times for professional journalists, with the transformation of information dispersion through the Internet and social media, the manipulation of U. S. social media by malignant forces, including the Russian government, and especially the pervasiveness of “fake news.”
But in my mind, the accomplishments of Twohey and Kantor will surely inspire Milwaukee journalists attending this event to keep up fighting the good fight for the sake of truth, the free press and democracy.

__________

1 While working as arts reporter and critic for The Capital Times in Madison, Kevin Lynch also received a first-place Milwaukee Press Club award for best critical review, and an honorable mention award.

Jazz musician and social activist Johannes Wallmann shows how love wins in a cynical age

 

Album cover for Johannes Wallmann’s “Love Wins.” 

Johannes Wallmann will present a CD-release concert in support of Love Wins (Fresh Sound/New Talent) at 8 p.m. Friday, May 11 at The Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray Ave., Milwaukee. Phone 414-964-9923, info@jazzestate.com. The group will include Wallman, piano; Rob Dz, spoken word/rap; Russ Johnson, trumpet; John Christensen, bass; and Mitch Shiner, drums.

“Love is unmotivated respect: all of which testified not to a peevish Lord who was His own love but one who enabled human love. Not for his own glory – never. God loved the way humans loved one another; loved the way humans loved themselves; loved the genius on the cross who managed to do both and die knowing it.” Toni Morrison, from her novel Paradise. 1

Johannes Wallmann is a musician worth caring about for reasons more than his artistry.  I, for one, wish more jazz musicians today found socially-relevant topics to set their music to, or be inspired by.

Not that it’s something required, in any PC sense. But the Madison-based pianist and composer has created a fabulous new album that happens to explore and assert equality in marriage. It also flows directly from the challenges of Wallmann’s own life and his dedication, and love (and don’t shortchange that too-oft dismissed or debased concept), as well as his uphill and, yes, inspiring successes.

I can think of few recordings in recent memory where the music and lyrics prove as passionate, engaging and thoughtful as Love Wins. And few so closely entwine the musician’s creative strivings with each human’s worthiness of equality and respect, as this nation purports to profess.

Max Wendt Photography

Pianist-composer Johnannes Wallmann. Courtesy Wisconsin Union UW-Madison

Walllmann is gay, and his husband, Keith Borden, and he were two of the plaintiffs in the ACLU lawsuit challenging Wisconsin’s ban on sax-sex marriage (they had gotten married in Canada, where such marriage was legal). Wallmann couldn’t attend the August 2014 oral arguments before Judge Richard Posner and two other members of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

When in 2012 Wallmann and Borden moved from California to Wisconsin for Wallmann to lead the jazz studies program at the University of Wisconsin, the couple had been together for 15 years. They had been legally married for five years. However, the State of Wisconsin did not recognize their marriage.

A month later Posner wrote the ruling that upheld an earlier federal court decision striking down Wisconsin’s same-sex marriage ban. In June 2015, the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage across the U.S.

Johannes Wallmann with his husband Keith Borden. Courtesy Isthmus newspaper 

“I thought there had to be something in there that could make an interesting composition,” Wallmann told Jane Burns for Isthmus newspaper.

The ruling’s results are “love wins” – not a formal legal decree but what it meant most to Wallman and Borden. It sure as hell inspired Wallmann, and he corralled a gifted group of musicians to broaden his aural canvas. His most notable collaborator is Madison hip-hop rapper/lyricist Rob Dz.  “He’s absolutely world-class as an improvisor,” says Wallmann of Dz. “There are few people in the world who can do what he can do — freestyle rapping in a jazz setting where he’s able to respond to what’s going on in the music.”

Wallman feels the moment is ripe for such a statement: “It’s a good time for it. We seem to be taking a lot of steps backward and we need to remember to celebrate when we have successes and acknowledge that.”

Still, the recorded celebration grows thematically as a suite, and is not without a clear aspect of drama. The album opens with the philosophically declamatory “Equality!”, and the next three tracks are “Preamble,” “Love Wins,” and “We (reach for) Love.”

Then, the fulcrum of the 10-track album arrives –  the fifth cut, titled “The Seventh Circuit”  – in which Wallmann deftly samples into the tune portions of the actual lawyers’ oral arguments from the court proceedings. So it’s legal and social history literally documented, and enhanced.

“Equality!” opens the album with a hip-shakin’ boogaloo ensemble line, conveying the power of collective momentum and mutability for a greater good. It also suggests dance as an underestimated human rhythmic force. “Hatred is seen as a frivolity,” Dz notes, then posits: “Why can’t we all find a way to just be us, from the rights of Stonewall to those refusing to give up seats on the bus/ to those seeking to open up the door to equality?” The ensemble lines follow, tight, tough and harmonically pungent.

By contrast, the instrumental “Preamble” sets a more uplifting, expansive tone with the horns casting musical questions in the air like a skywriter, with trumpeter Johnson especially soaring.

The title track “Love Wins,” ensues, resurrecting the modal celebratory vamping of some 1960s jazz. Interwoven with instrumental solos and buoyant refrains by vocalist Sharon Clark is an eloquent and wise meditation on love, by Dz: Love is patient, love is kind, love is a spiritual connection/ There is no true definition, love is what brings life to fruition/ love is designed to be a disposition…who are we to try and box it in, or micromanage love?…Now imagine a world without love/ when the very fabric of our existence as been disposed of?…All love wants to do is live free, as the basis of equality./ It’s a right to love for every American – white, brown, yellow, red…” 

“We (Search for Love)” sounds like the force of love’s inexorable will. “We will, we will love!” Dz asserts defiantly.  Wallmann uses synthesizer with a swirling muscularity to lift the tune to a powerful climax.

“The Seventh Circuit” aptly bristles with contrapuntal lines – trumpet, tenor and baritone saxes, guitar and Devin Drobka’s crackling drums – that swing and stomp.  Johnson’s trumpet absolutely shines, as a rights-of-humanity beacon over troubled waters. And then the sampled lawyer comments arise. Finally, Rob Dz drops into the discussion, like an avenger for love, a brilliant stroke.

“Can I Know (More Love)?” belongs to veteran Madison singer Jan Wheaton, recalling Carmen McRae tempered by Shirley Horn, and  offers a limpid respite from the hurly-burly. It’s the calm before a spirit storm.

“Stonewall was a Riot” functions on at least two levels. It refers to the 1969 “Stonewall rebellion,” an historic series of spontaneous protests by gays in Greenwich Village that gave birth, in a loud outcrying, to the gay liberation movement. The music of “Stonewall”  is pure swinging, righteousness – evoking John Coltrane’s “Resolution,” from his classic album A Love Supreme, perhaps the most celebrated and powerful testimony on the subject in jazz history. So Wallmann’s music feels inevitable here, an homage, but steely-willed rather than reverent.

The closing tunes borrow from Cannonball Adderley-style soul jazz and, finally, more beautiful writing, singing and playing –- in sum, a spirit-empowering affirmation of love as an uplifting, elusive and functional force in life.  

Wallmann has played increasingly in Milwaukee as a sideman for trumpeters Brian Lynch and Russ Johnson, who is now returning the favor, and for vocalist Jackie Allen. But he’s clearly one of the premier jazz talents in the upper Midwest, not only given that he is director of UW Madison’s jazz studies program. He’s toured the U.S., Europe and Asia, and performed or recorded with trumpeters Lynch, Ingrid Jensen and Ralph Alessi; saxophonists Gary Bartz, Seamus Blake, Dennis Mitchelltree, and Pete Yellin; bassist Matt Penman, drummers Jeff Hirschfield and Danny Gottlieb; tubaist Howard Johnson, and singers Kevin Mahogany and Donald Bailey, among others.

Johannes Wallmann (right) with hip-hop word artist Rob Dz. Photo by Keith Borden, courtesy Insmus.com

Rob Dz has contributed mightily, in his comparatively soft-spoken manner, to recordings and performances by the excellent politically-minded jazz group Chicago Yestet, and he works weekly with a Madison-based band, New Breed Trio.

In fact, he’s the rapper for those who struggle with more braggadocious and off-color hip-hop. That ain’t for a second to say he’s not a serious truth-dealer, even important, and yes, cool.

Dz is also a thoughtful historian of his chosen art form, with a dry sense of humor. I recall his fine presentation on hip-hip and rap when he spoke at a cultural journalism class I taught at Edgewood College in Madison a number of years ago. At one point, one of my students asked him what his favorite kind of music was.

“Silence,” he answered, without losing a beat. Though doubtless tongue-in-cheek, that solitary word spoke volumes from his sly, reflective side.

Dz, Wallmann & Company show that Love Wins won’t remain silent, even as it stands on the most easily derided of human values. Acclaimed, and sometimes acerbic author and essayist Martin Amis identifies love as the essential quality in Saul Bellow’s work, in arguing for him as perhaps America’s greatest novelist. “Love has always been celebrated for, among other things, its transformative powers; and it is with love, in concert with his overpowering need to commemorate and preserve (‘I am the nemesis of the would-be-forgotten.’) that Bellow transforms the world.” 2

Johannes Wallmann here seems to do that, with both the jazz tradition and human  equality in life and marriage. In his telling, love takes on all comers, and transforms the world. As did “the genius on the cross,” whom Toni Morrison aptly describes as a black man: “See? His woolly head alternately rising on his neck and falling toward his chest, the glow of his midnight skin dimmed by dust, streaked by gall, fouled by spit and urine…This execution made it possible to respect – freely, not in fear – oneself and one another.”  3

________

1.Toni Morrison, passage from Paradise quoted in The Origin of Others, Harvard University Press, 2017, 70-71

2. Martin Amis, The Rub of Time, Nabokov, Bellow, Hitchens, Travolta, Trump: Essays and Reportage, 1994-2017, Knopf, 2018, 26

3. Morrison, from Paradise quoted in The Origin of Others, 71-72

For more information, visit: http://www.johanneswallmann.com

Lynne Arriale Trio will perform a CD-release concert at Milwaukee’s Blu nightclub on Mother’s Day

Lynne Arriale Trio CD-release concert for Give Us These Days (Challenge Records) , with Jeff Hamann, bass, and Dave Bayless, drums  

Blu nightclub, Pfister Hotel, 424 E. Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, May 13, $20 advance, $25 at the door. Contact: Blu information

 

Time has only deepened the shadows and glow of Lynne Arriale’s art. From her earliest days as a pianist in Milwaukee, she asserted her vision and will to become a leader in the classic jazz idiom of piano trio, and its intense spotlight. By now, we needn’t discuss how the jazz culture remained then, in the 1970s, a male-dominated realm. This has never deterred her, at least by the evidence of her performances and recordings.

Her music remains unalloyed in its crystalline brilliance. As this should imply, there are many facets to this art, the unalloyed aspect is probably the purity of her strength as an artist. As a musician, she ably encompasses a panoply of straight-ahead jazz vocabulary. Give Us These Days testifies to her balance of original composition and ingenious yet utterly appealing probings of the better compositional felicities of popular music.

So she opens the album with a clarion call of her generation, Joni Mitchell’s “Woodstock,” a song of utter inspiration, when the songwriter watched the original Woodstock phenomenon secondhand. Still, Mitchell was moved as a songful storyteller, sensing a profound moment in time. That remains more than enough – Arriale takes firm grasp of the song’s somewhat modal cast, carving out the melody by striking powerful chords, as if the “half-a-million strong” generational tsunami drives her own witnessing. Her solo finds space behind the beat, pauses, and arpeggios to the song’s embracing vision. Hear Tyner-esque power in her cascading drive. With drummer Jasper Somsen kicking it up a muscular notch, this goes from graceful will to resolute testimony, and genuine joy in humanity’s ongoing potential.

But Arriale’s no idealizing Pollyanna. By contrast, her other cover, Lennon and McCartney’s “Let It Be” abides by the title’s implicit Zen philosophizing, wholly inhabiting the song’s deep-chested wisdom, imbued with grace. The pianist’s solo turns through the stately changes like jewels held to daylight.

Lynne Arriale new CD. Courtesy Challenge records

Among her excellent originals, the title tune, “Give Us These Days,” brims with meaning. The title derives from a poem by Jim Schley, titled “Devotional.” Indeed, it gathers itself as a bouquet of humble words, and a genial, wondering, musical theme steps deftly into gentle winds. The music feels like a prayer for blessings from Bill Evans’s exquisitely tragic ghost, with its lovely descending voicings of melody melting into limpid concentric harmonic circles. Like a true poet, Arriale also knows when to end, never wasting anyone’s time with mere chops displays or empty rhetoric.

“Appassionata” unfurls a smart Latin tempo that recalls Chick Corea, but Arriale possesses her own attack, resonance and phrase-turning – elegant yet driven in the same long pianistic breath. Bassist Jasper Somsen interacts propulsively with her chording. The melody, a strength of her writing, conveys an eloquent arch- the-back steeliness to reach for intervals of melodic rightness.

Arriale clearly prioritizes beauty in her music. However, she provides relief from the lyrical and sumptuous in the slightly Monkish “Slightly Off Kilter,” with its see-saw rhythmic tumble and puckish dissonance. Van Hulten’s counterpunching drums work like cock-eyed clockwork as Arriale swings with stylish muscle and momentum. Similarly, “Over and Out,” revels in pungent harmonic and rhythmic potency.

By delicious contrast, this leads to a surprise, the album’s closer “Take It with Me,” a Tom Waits song rendered by guest vocalist Kate McGarry. “The ocean it is as blue as your eyes. I’m gonna take it with me when I go,” she sings early on, a sort of reverie acknowledging the preciousness of life’s final departure. Cultural commentators are loathe to ascribe sentiment to art they seek to praise. Yet there’s a place for unabashed feeling especially born of the poetic songwriter’s reflective poise. For Waits’ sentiment stands up beacon-like to the heart’s deepest ache and travails. And that’s nothing to sneeze at. Its emotion is well-earned by Waits’ wry-tinged mastery, and the dueting artistry of Arriale and McGarry.

Arriale proves she knows how to craft a full album, with a meaningful musical and expressive arc, an increasingly lost art, in this age of bifurcated attention spans. Sit back, let this music breath, amid your own senses and its fine passing time. Give us these days.

Is Sean Hannity the new shadow president?

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Sean Hannity talks and Trump listens hard, it seems. Look again at Hannity here…SeaCourtesy imgflip.com

CULTURE CURRENTS MEDIA WATCH Celestron 25x100 SkyMaster, Weather Resistant Porro Prism Binocular with 3.0 Degree Angle of View, U.S.A. - 71017

April, 18, 2018

Regarding the new controversy in TV-besotted Trumpworld: Fox talk show host Sean Hannity’s evidently increasing closeness and influence over Donald Trump and his “thinking,” ie. his tweets and even policy behaviors.

“It’s impossible to overstate how much influence Sean Hannity has on Trump and the White House,” says a pundit on a show Wednesday afternoon, hosted by Nicolle Wallace, a Republican talk show host on MSNBC.*

“But it’s innocuous, because it’s so transparent, “ says Donny Deutsch, an advertising executive and former talk TV host, who’s a curious sort of pundit on serious politics. He seems to take a quasi-aesthetic/ political gamesmanship angle, the kind who manipulates mirrors to see things, then “re-focuses” to his curiously skewed viewpoint. He’s the sort of “liberalesque” guy who might be liked by Trump (See Deutsch’s controversies below 1)

“Here’s where it’s dangerous,” Wallace quickly countered. “Fox isn’t state-run media; the state is run by Fox…It’s dangerous, Hannity has accused of Bob Mueller launching a war on Trump.”

Wallace has become one of MSNBC’s most watchable and compelling hosts, even though she’s a bit buried in the middle of the daily afternoon slot. I’m fortunate that I work largely at home, and can catch her from time to time. And she’s worth political reflection for not being an obvious liberal, like most MSNBC hosts. I admit I seem to be a clear liberal now, having been pushed further left in recent decades by Republican corruption, inhumane destructiveness, and now a sort of presidential insanity and the pervasive spinelessness of Republican Congress members.

(Similarly another Republican commentator frequently on MSNBC, former George W. Bush strategist Steve Schmidt is, for my money, among the most lacerating, illuminating, and eloquent critics of Trump. He’s a paragon of a true Republican patriot, and could be a strong (R) presidential candidate, if he were so inclined. 2)

Back to the exchange on the Wallace show: Deutsch’s waffling-banalities-disguised-as-bright-ideas continues: “A poll says half of Republicans say that Fox News is the most reliable source of information…I think Fox viewers accept whatever Trump has to deliver. He’s a master communicator.”

To me, “master communicator” is an utterly grandiose way of putting it (or driving it when he should be putting it, to use a golf analogy Trump might understand).

A “master communicator” cannot persistently be a “you know what I mean” president, as Wallace again pithily nailed Trump as, versus one who can actually study, understand and articulate a viable, humane, democratic, and coherent policy. We’re increasingly frightened by Trump’s dangerous, by-seat-of-his-pants “foreign policy.” What’s left of my hair turns whiter daily.

To me, Trump is not “such an idiot” as a friend of mine recently said, in understandable exasperation. More precisely, Trump is an idiot savant, of sorts. And it’s quite clear by now that his “genius” is his ability to toy with his 30% voter lemmings, the base group called “The Base” – and, sadly, manipulate the daily news cycle, with his irrepressible and typically semi-articulate Twitter bleats. So yes, there’s also some strange breed of fox in this orange-haired Fox suckler.

Another dangerous aspect of the Hannity-Trump “symbiotic” relationship (as these pundits agreed on) is that not only is Hannity the “unofficial Chief of Staff’ as White House insiders now call him. With John Kelley seriously on the outs (and Trump following the advice of no official staffer, except maybe his newbie nuclear-tipped plaything John Bolton), Hannity might be morphing into the type of presidential whisperer that Dick Cheney was: in effect, the shadow president when George W. Bush was nominally president.

Bush implicitly admitted this, by having to repeatedly assert his independence from Cheney by calling himself “The Decider. “ The problem, and danger and tragedy (see: The Iraq War, and the unleashing of Middle East chaos, which continues exacerbated today) was that W.’s decisions stood on the hyper-macho mountains of bullshit built – and fed to him – by Cheney, and the nuclear tomahawk who is now Trump’s national security advisor, John Bolton.

Lord (if you’re paying attention anywhere), have mercy on us!

I don’t watch Hannity enough to give him a pointed or pithy labeI, or characterization.  I’ll leave that up to others. Thoughts?

Respond on Facebook, preferably, or on the comments section here.

____________

*I apologize, I turned away from the TV to begin typing notes for this post, so I missed the name of this quoted commenter. If any reader can identify him, please do!

  1. In 2014, Deutsch was ordered to pay a real estate broker a four percent commission for the 2010 sale of his $30 million home in the Hamptonsarea of New York. He was ordered by the New York Supreme Court to pay $1.2 million to Sotheby’s for his breach of contract with broker Edward Petrie.[19][20]
  2. Schmidt’s comments often provide striking historical perspectives, like his acidic but imaginative tweet posted Wednesday: “Understanding what Trump did to (UN Ambassador Nikki) Haley requires a leap of imagination to the surreal where after Adlai Stevenson delivers his brilliant exposition of Soviet lies, Bobby Kennedy calls the Kremlin and says don’t worry about it, we don’t mean it, and then JFK takes Zorins’ side.” (Valerian Alexandrovich Zorin was a Soviet diplomat best remembered for his famous confrontation with Adlai Stevenson on 25 October 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)

The late Cecil Taylor reconsidered and revisited: An interview from 1986

Almost exactly two months before my June 11, 1986 interview with pianist Cecil Taylor, he’d been in Berlin performing solo, and recorded for what became his next album, For Olim, on the Italian Soul Note label. The concert was for the “Workshop Freie Music 1986,” a festival of improvised music. I just now realized that time frame, and consider how that might illuminate our remarkable interview. I’m taking care to think of temporal matters, as I don’t laugh off non-scientific things like numerology.

And now that Cecil has died, which changes many things, some small details grow in magnitude. As I mentioned in my previously posted Taylor appreciation, he was born in March 25, 1929 in Long Island. My father, who had a similar interpersonal warmth, was born less than 4 months later, July 20, 1929, on the opposite American coast, in Seattle. Norm Lynch first spurred my interest in music with his love of jazz and classical music, and his favorite jazz artist was composer/arranger bandleader Stan Kenton, whom classically-trained Taylor also held in high regard.

I certainly felt a connection to Taylor when I met and interviewed him that summer. And I was stunned when, after the interview, our mutual friend Ken Miller persuaded him to fly to Milwaukee to merely visit, a place he may never have been to, though he did teach at the UW-Madison for several years in the early 1970s. Perhaps Cecil was coming out of the grief and mourning of having lost the musician closest to him, longtime Unit member and saxophonist Jimmy Lyons, who died in May 1986, the month right between his For Olim concert and our June interview (The For Olim album is dedicated “To the living Spirit of Jimmy Lyons”).

***

Which brings me to say that, though I have nothing but fond memories of him, I don’t want to paint Taylor with a hint of a Pollyanna patina. That first teaching gig of his in UW Madison’s music department revealed how Taylor could be a difficult person. 

I know not much of that period of his life, aside from my very first Taylor concert experience – seeing him perform solo at UW-Madison’s Mills Concert Hall. I was in the third row, and I could almost feel his leaping, cougar-like muscles, his flying sweat. This was an astonishing revelation of the potential of live music performance, something that could easily encompass, music, dance and athletic feats, like playing a full game of competitive basketball (I easily imagine the small, wiry Taylor as an Allen Iverson-style point guard; he typically wore athletic garb for his performances). He played this concert without his nearly ever-present glasses, so his extraordinary physical dynamism and intensity led to an almost comical circumstance.  1, 2 His black knit cap repeatedly slipped down over his eyes and he would play blind for several minutes at a time, before easing the pace and allowing himself to push the cap back out of his eyes.

Once of the mysteries of Cecil Taylor was that he lived to be 89 while being a life-long cigarette smoker. However, the rigorous athletic lifestyle he otherwise kept probably contributed to his longevity. Courtesy jazzbluesnews.space

And the UW is where he met Ken Miller, the dancer with whom Taylor would form a deep, lasting bond, and who became the first person to ever dance with the Cecil Taylor Unit.

However, it’s a matter of history that in this teaching position he controversially flunked two-thirds of his final music class. I think the extraordinarily high standards that he set for himself, he also expected or hoped of others, especially his students. At UW, I suspect he was still learning how to maintain reasonable rubrics of instructional expectations. After all, he did live in The World of Cecil Taylor (as one of his first albums was titled) which was a profound, wide-ranging and sometimes mysterious realm. 

And I know, from first-hand experience as a recent graduate student and teaching assistant, that even today it’s easy for professors – at large universities where research expectations are valued more than teaching – to elide the clarity of set rubrics, in the name of “academic freedom.” But students can be left groping, without proper benchmarks for a good grade.

Madison jazz pianist Jane Reynolds, who did a PhD dissertation on Taylor, says the UW music department stopped allowing Taylor to use their pianos because they thought he was damaging them. “That pushed him over the edge,” Reynolds says. Taylor soon left UW, with Ken Miller, for a teaching position at Antioch College. He later also taught at Glassboro State College in New Jersey.

***

I digress: Taylor’s 1987 Milwaukee trip had no prospect of a gig or payment, only socializing, hosted by Ken, a dear old friend. Cecil and Ken came to my home for dinner and attended a reception in Taylor’s honor, the real centerpiece of the visit, filled with many musicians. 

Cecil Taylor greets fans at a reception held for him at the Wisconsin Conservatory of music in Milwaukee in 1987. His long-time friend and collaborator Ken Miller, who organized the event, sits directly to his left. 

Pardon the personal indulgences. But my welter of feelings and thoughts upon his death last week finally focused on the realization that posting that 1986 interview was a very logical extension of the remembrance I wrote. The interview is, among other things, sort of the soul of my relationship with Cecil Taylor, such as it was. I reported and wrote it for Down Beat magazine, but it was held in his front practice room, on the second floor of his three story townhouse, beside his grand practice piano. He would not reveal the brand of that piano, perhaps because he didn’t want potential thieves assessing is value. He had good reason being wary, partly because he knew he was a naturally gregarious person who might easily be hustled. This indeed happened late in his life, when a contractor he thought of as a friend bilked him out of his $500,000 Kyoto Prize, though the man was later exposed and arrested.

When I interviewed him, Cecil talked well into the second of two 90-minute cassette tapes I had with me. I’ve never needed, before or since, more than one 90-minute tape for an interview of an artist. Again, the numbers suggest something about the nature and quality of the conversation. It mainly reflects Taylor’s thoughtful, poetic eloquence, his extraordinary, quicksilver mind which took surprising tangents but usually tied them together in his own distinctive way. I hope the interview as published conveys the best of that talk, although much was edited out. (More commentary and photography below, after the magazine interview) 

The cover of Taylor’s 1987 album “For Olim,” was among his most acclaimed of many solo piano recordings. The triple-exposure photo by Ken Miller aptly characterized Taylor as an embodiment of the title’s meaning. On the back cover is this explanation: ” *Olim – An Aztec hieroglyph meaning movement, motion, earthquake.” Album Photo by Ken Miller, courtesy Soul Note IREC.

 

 

What also presses greatly on my memory and heart now is Ken Miller, a nearly forgotten man who died in his mid-40s of respiratory illness. His death crushed me, as I was by then working in Madison and had lost touch with Ken in the pre-social media era. He was a sweet, gifted and remarkably wise man who, more than any other friend, helped me through my tumultuous first marriage. He helped counsel Taylor through his teaching career and far beyond. He was also a talented cultural facilitator and promoter, photographer and visual artist.

His brilliant photos of Taylor, taken in the pianist’s Milwaukee hotel room, also inspired a promotional campaign for Polygram Special Imports, the company that distributed the Soul Note label of Taylor’s recordings at the time. The promotion included a “Jazz Mount Rushmore” motif built around Miller’s iconic cover photo of Cecil on For Olim. I was among the jazz journalists who received unsolicited a sweatshirt and a large promotional pin. A nifty marketing strategy, however Ken Miller knew nothing of it until I told him of the promotion items using his superbly sculpted portrait (see photo below). He later said he never received any compensation for their artistic liberties with his intellectual property, unlike DownBeat which paid for in their original use of his photographs 

Photo of Polygram Special Imports promotional items by Kevin Lynch

I believe part of the reason Ken Miller died so young was that he was a financially struggling artistic black man who didn’t get the proper medical treatment he needed. I always wanted to talk to Cecil about this, but when I finally phoned him, late in his life, he never called back. I sensed that the subject of Ken it may have ventured into private matters. They were both gay men, but Taylor, born in the Great Depression, survived partly by staying in the closet until the 1980s, when he was outed by a conservative journalist who also played drums and had an ax to grind, because Cecil did not let him play in The Unit.

I suspect Taylor’s strong private side reflected his generation’s struggle with sexual politics, like other great gay jazz men – pianist-composer-aranger Billy Strayhorn, born in 1915, and singer-songwriter/pianist Andy Bey, 10 years Cecil’s junior. Only now, of course, are we addressing important issues like marriage and gender equality, in a nation where we profess that “all men (and women) are created equal.”  I believe that, had they both been born later, Ken and Cecil would’ve become legal partners. Only one of them lived anything close the expectancy of a full life, and Cecil’s was lived uphill most of the way, outperforming white men and virtually everyone, to finally gain, as an old man, honors with financial rewards.

Now, I also recall of my day with Cecil, several cats roaming his home, and a poster on his practice room wall of Chicago multi-instrumentalist and composer Joseph Jarman (best known as a member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago) looking down on us. The Jarman poster now seems more significant, again for temporal reasons. The Art Ensemble’s artistic motto was “Ancient to the Future.” If any other musician, outside of that ensemble, embodied the motto’s values, it was Cecil Taylor. His vision traced our culture’s past and unfolding future and, we hope, vitality. He studied and understood the genius of ancient non-Western cultures and hovered like, a great American eagle, his wings helping illuminate – by directing sunlight with shadow, back and forward – a long road less-traveled. 

And that has made all the difference – for sure at least, an incalculable difference.

______________

  1. Among the giants of new thing jazz in the 1960s, Cecil was about the only one who wore glasses, as he was quite nearsighted and a voracious reader and not uncoincidentally perhaps the most overtly intellectual. However, a comparable case could be made for Archie Shepp, who didn’t wear glasses to perform, but was the first black saxophonist to record with Taylor (soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy – a Russian-American Jew who, like Taylor, loved and worked with poetry – played on his recording debut in 1957). Another avant-garde contemporary of Taylor’s of far less renown, who was comparably bespectacled, was trumpeter Bill Dixon. Among the few other bespectacled great musicians of that generation, but hardly an avant-gardist, was pianist Bill Evans. Yet, in a far quieter way, he was a great and influential innovator.
  2. Among the next generation of jazzers, baby boomers, trumpeter Woody Shaw is one of very few who performed with glasses, also clearly a strong prescription. Woody also was a deep, heady musician and – as a younger baby boomer trumpeter and jazz scholar, bespectacled Brian Lynch, has shown in recent years – a musician still underappreciated for his innovations. (This p.s. shouldn’t be misinterpreted as picking on near-sighted musicians, as I myself have a comparable strong prescription.)
  3. I listened again to the very beginning of the recorded Cecil Taylor interview, and had forgotten that the first thing Taylor does, after greeting me and offering me some fruit juice, was sit down and play a typically powerful, repeated, two-handed Cecil Taylor etude figure on the piano — my very own mini-Cecil Taylor bootleg! And he knew I was recording already. Critic Whitney Balliett was so right about his desire to share his music. Why else would he typically played well past when most people would drop over from exhaustion?

 

Jazz singer Steve Marche-Torme forced to cancel tonight’s performance at Jazz Estate

 

CANCELLED SHOW: Tonight, Saturday, April 14, 8 p.m. The Jazz Estate – Jazz singer Steve Marche-Torme (the son of Mel Torme) is a superb vocal stylist in his own right and will make his debut at an intimate Milwaukee club.

MARCHE-TORME HAD TO CANCEL THIS JAZZ ESTATE GIG, DUE TO ICY ROADS IN NORTHERN WISCONSIN, the Estate reports. The management apologized for circumstances “totally beyond our control.”

Marche-Torme has been rescheduled for June 9 at 8 p.m.

For those who purchased tickets, the tickets will be automatically moved to the June 9th event.  Anyone who purchased tickets can get in tonight’s show for 1/2 price, we’ll have a list at the door, The Estate explained. 

Tonight, April 14, the bassist Jim Paolo’s Quartet will fill in, with saxophonist Eric Schoor, pianist Mark Davis, and drummer Dave Bayles.